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June 05, 2008

Richard Florida

The College City

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Very interesting report over at Inside Higher Education:

The quintessential college town is lush and lined with quaint boulevards. It’s Ann Arbor, Mich., Charlottesville, Va., and Boulder, Colo. It’s dive bars and bookstores and movie theaters that still charge less than a meal.

Classic college towns are typically considered idyllic places to live. Plenty of institutions claim to being located in one, but there are some that simply cannot. They are the urban colleges, located in mid-sized or major metropolitan areas whose social and cultural orbits extend well beyond the campus. And these are where a large portion of professors reside ...

New York and Washington would be at the top of the list of so-called college cities. They are immensely diverse and have an abundance of museums and performance venues. Mark Hutter, a professor of sociology at Rowan University and author of Experiencing Cities, said that while these cities certainly cater to the creative class and are filled with faculty and students, they aren’t classic college cities. Put another way, New York and Washington are undoubtedly “college friendly,” but they’re hardly “college centered” like the quintessential college city — Boston.

What sets Boston apart, accord to Hutter, is that many of the city’s landmarks and cultural points are campus buildings and centers. When you think of Boston, its academic institutions and their town squares quickly come to mind. That’s not the case with other sizable cities. One associates New York with business, media and the arts; Los Angeles with entertainment; San Francisco with software and startups.

Love to hear your thoughts on this one.


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I, as a student who has experienced both the New England small city academic environment and the booming metropolis variety, am inclined to lean toward the large city as the better of the two. While there's a lot to be said about the more traditional college experience, it tends to be all about college life - very insulated and largely only theoretically aware of the outside world. The fact that landmarks and cultural points are all centered around the school may make students and faculty feel good about themselves but I think it makes for a bit of myopic worldview. I think going to school in a big city is a great learning experience because you're not just learning from your academic surroundings. You're learning about real life and culture nearly every second whether in class, in line at the deli, or at the museum. It's like giving a a fish an ocean to explore versus a large aquarium.

Zachary Neal

I certainly agree that there are big differences between college towns and college cities. But, I think an important distinction can be drawn between two different types of college cities. Institutions like NYU, Georgetown, and Harvard, while not located in college towns, have nonetheless evolved as college enclaves - something like a town-within-a-city. But in other cases the college is nearly indistinguishable from the city surrounding it. This seems to be more common for newer colleges of urban campuses of large state colleges (e.g. University of Illinois at Chicago). But, this distinction seems more connected to the colleges themselves, than the cities they're located in. In Chicago, the University of Chicago and Nothwestern operate as if they were in college towns (Hyde Park and Evanston), while UIC, DePaul, and Loyola operate as if they were just another part of the city.

Scott McLeod

What would be the distinction between a 'college city' and a city that simply had colleges in it?

Lynn Stevens

Yes, many "college cities" lack the imageability of college town/city. Colleges/universities (IHEs) have established different patterns in relation to their host locales. Many IHEs established themselves as "academical villages" (Jeffersonian term) unto themselves -- Oxford, Cambridge, University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Northwestern and University of Chicago as noted above. with historic quadrangles and idyllic campuses. As both campuses and cities expanded, the term evolved to "univer-city." Even earlier, others such as University of Paris and University of Bologna were established as an integral part of their cities and expanded in tandem with them. Geography as destiny?

Today, many students make their college choices based on their image of the campus. Some will prefer the campus apart and some will prefer the campus integrated.

For urban IHEs, their future is also integrated with their host city's. They would do well to keep their students on campus by building student housing and keeping their staff at least near campus with, for example, employer assisted housing programs.

Both urban IHEs and their host cities mutually benefit from a mix of uses that cater to a diverse population. Shared uses such as Chicago's University Center (dorm on top, retail at street level) and Toronto/Ryerson University's shared movie theater/classroom space serve both the IHEs and the cities and contribute to the dynamism and therefore attractiveness of the city environment.

Lou Musante

Speaking of Boston, I just read in the Boston Globe, see link below, that Gov Patrick just appointed a Director of the State's Creative Economy, Jason S. Schupbach. Hats off to the Gov.

What caught my eye was the industries they will focus on expanding. "We will focus on a diverse sector that ranges from individual artists to cultural institutions to video game makers."

Although this maybe a holistic definition of their creative sector, research by Richard Florida, Catalytix and others have shown that 1 in 3 workers in the US are emplyed in a creative job one defined as they get paid to think for a living. They are paid for their ideas and not for their sweat, labor or service like waiting tables or cleaning rooms. Not that these are not important and necessary jobs but these service and labor workers are generally not getting paid for their ideas.

It brings up the issue of defining what is and isn't included in the creative sector. From Charles Landry (creative city) to John Howkins (creative economy) and every regional economic study on the creative sector, everyone has a different definition.

In order for states and countries to be able to compare and benchmark their creative sectors, the economic development community needs to come together on a common definition of the creative sector.

Recent work by Dr. Kevin Stolarick, a colleague of Richard Florida's at Univeristy of Toronto and Dr. Elizabeth Currid at UCLA have just published ground breaking work on the combined use of Industrial and Occupational Clusters to more accurately size creative sectors.

I suggest a group like the IEDC work with researchers like them to develop a universal defintion. It enables us all then to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.



I grew up in a small college town in the mid-west and consider the college town or city to be an ideal environment for creative people.

One point of interest is that some college towns, like Palo Alto are "closed". It is easier to operate in the town if you are involved with Stanford. If you not involved with the school or the local tech community, then you are not one of "us" is the impression that you sometimes get. By contrast, Berkeley, right across the bay is an "open" college town. The University reaches out to the community, so the entire town is pulled into the school's sphere of influence. Both towns have a tremendous positive impact on the metropolitian area.

Campus Entrepreneurship

Great find Richard and a great discussion that has given me a lot to think about in my research. We had been aware that 'urban' universities/colleges were different from the traditional campus (or the idealized notion of one), but the discussion at this blog has brought out many dimensions. thank you to all.


I think that the university is the "ideal" incarnation of the creative class itself.....that being said, Universities create very real incubators and skunk works, that can provide spin-off companies that redefine the city itself(see Stanford or MIT). And all universities create the very eclectic ambience that attracts visitors and relocatees. Funky retail strips, theaters, art districts, etc, all make areas that much more attractive. Austin Texas can essentially
thank the University of Texas for 100% of the reason the city morphed into a relocatees mecca for the creative class. Like sex,
there is no bad influence on cities or neighborhoods with colleges/universities, and the great ones can transform cities into something else again, in a gestalt sense...

Lynn Stevens

There indeed are bad influences on some cities and neighborhoods, usually related to housing (students don't always make the most careful tenants/neighbors) and intoxication. I think these are less of an issue with urban IHEs that are integrated into the city and neighborhood.

More global issues such as land grabs, lack of taxable property, etc., can have negative influence and impact (granted, some positive as well). Thus the age-old town/gown conflicts.

Zoe B

One big difference between the 'college town' and the 'college city' is the level of local crime. A lot of urban universities are located in relatively dangerous parts of town. Poor property values allow the university to buy property and expand into an already-built environment. And run-down housing stock gives students a cheap place to live (OK, one could debate whether the housing stock gets run-down before or after the students move in...). Perhaps poor property values allow an urban university to soften its borders with the surrounding community - if the university expands into properties or lots not directly adjacent to the main campus.

In contrast, my college town is relatively safe. The major source of trouble is alcohol - leading to vandalism, fights, and rape (including date rape). Most residents avoid the student neighborhoods during the drinking hours: weekends (especially football weekends), Halloween, St. Patrick's Day, Homecoming.... Unfortunately, the prime student neighborhood is our downtown (adjacent to campus). Adults who might be interested in living downtown are intimidated not by crime per se, but by the periodic hordes of drunk students walking the streets. This is ironic considering that statistically, even with the alcohol problem, we are one of the safest places in the USA.

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